The rhetoric of monotheism had a couple of unforeseen consequences: the rhetoric became reality. They'd accidentally invented both monotheism, and the concept of religious faith.


In cultures heavily influenced by the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, faith these days is practically synonymous with religion. It’s such an obvious and natural fact that we refer to all world religions as “faiths.”

So it can be hard to realize how bafflingly weird this development seemed to everyone else back then, during the post-exilic, Second Temple period. Strict monotheism and religious faith were totally new. And to the Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans… they made no sense. 

Even today, this particular concept of faith—a requisite belief in one’s god and in the teachings of one’s received scriptures—isn’t really a thing in most other religious traditions. About half the world’s population grew up in such cultures (even factoring in Islam’s massive baby boom that’s going on).

That’s mildly interesting, I guess. But again, so what? Faith is nothing more than thoughts inside people’s heads, after all. What’s this got to do with government and law?


Support the Guide on Patron!

Be sure to share your comments in the Class Participation section below -- that's the best part! Also, you can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through pages quickly.

Use this link to buy the books, and a portion of the proceeds goes to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

Join the conversation! There are now 10 comments on this chapter's page 123. Inventing God and Law: You Gotta Have Faith. What are your thoughts?
  1. STM says

    Does the Old Testament, or any other Jewish authority, explicitly state or clearly imply that Yahweh is male? I know he (?) becomes God the Father in Christianity, but does the Yahweh of early monotheism have a gender originally? Ancient Yahweh had a wife, but after the other gods were deleted, what does it matter?

    • Yes, in the texts of the Second Temple period, Yahweh is explicitly a masculine patriarch, the Father of Creation. He is their King. And he is emphatically a dude.

      You can’t base that conclusion strictly on what his name was in any given text. Depending on who wrote or revised the text and when, Yahweh gets called “El” (the previous father deity) or “Elohim” (a collective plural noun for gods in general) or “Adonai” or “Kyrios” or “Shaddai” or several more. At first, these were all very different words with very different meanings, and “Elohim” in particular sounds like it could refer to the female deities just as much as the male ones. And over time, writers kind of phased out “Yahweh” in favor of “Elohim,” so doesn’t that mean he was becoming gender-neutral? And nobody was going back and changing all the names to a single consistently male name, so doesn’t that mean this discrepancy didn’t bother them? Yes, it didn’t bother them. But not because they thought of him as genderless, but because all these names were losing their original usage and just becoming synonymous names for Yahweh.

      It would also be a mistake to base that conclusion on the linguistic gender of the nouns. In Biblical Hebrew, masculine and feminine nouns could refer to a person who was clearly of the other sex. If you saw a feminine noun or verb conjugation for someone who was a herald, or a speaker in the assembly, for example, you might think they were talking about a woman when it was really a man. And collective plural nouns could have masculine or feminine endings regardless of the gender of those in the collection. “Elohim” was a masculine plural, for example, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean it referred to a collection of male gods.

      We know Yahweh was explicitly a masculine patriarch because that is how Yahweh is literally described throughout the Hebrew texts, whether canon or non-canon. (And there wasn’t even such a thing as “canon” Hebrew scripture until much later, anyway.) They had come a long way in transforming their conception of Yahweh from one of many gods to the only god in the world, but their concept of what a god is was the same as that of those who still worshipped a pantheon. Yahweh was a deity in the spirit realm, yes, but he was still very much an anthropomorphic being. Remember those early pictures of him with a big ol’ dangling penis? If you asked them even long after the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., they’d probably still say of course he has a penis.

      You probably wouldn’t get the same answer today. For many modern faithful, Yahweh/God/Allah has been abstracted far beyond any anthropomorphic body. They’d say it’s impossible to describe God, and any human-like descriptions are just a metaphorical way to wrap our heads around him. (Others, of course, would argue the contrary. Still others would argue that both are wrong.) There’s also a spectrum of feminist scholarship pointing out that Yahweh shouldn’t be thought of as masculine, for a variety of reasons. But all have to admit that the texts themselves are very clear about the fact that he’s a dude.

      There is a bit of recent scholarship making your point that Yahweh didn’t need to have a sex or gender, once there were no other deities with whom to have a relationship. But that misses the point that the Hebrews believed that he had a relationship with them. In their world, it mattered very much that he be a patriarchal male. Remember, they were still very much living in a world of patriarchal lineage, of tribe and clan. To think of their sovereign lord as anything other than a masculine, male deity, would have been… well, it would have been unthinkable. They couldn’t have thought of him any other way. They had no other context in which to think of him. And even if someone in all those various texts had tried to suggest an alternative narrative where Yahweh was neither male nor female, it wouldn’t have caught on, because it wouldn’t have reflected their reality.

      And even when they finally did start making purposeful changes to the scriptures to conform with their new monotheistic theology (I’m not sure if the early 2nd century BC Septuagint counts, I’m thinking more the rabbinical efforts in the 2nd century AD), the masculinity of Yahweh was not edited out. It was still very much how they thought of their god.

      – – –

      You’ve asked a great question. Not least because it highlights how these other novel narratives like monotheism did catch on: because they felt real. I’ve repeated several times in this history of government that narratives which fit, stick. We’re going to explore that in more detail later—plus its corollary for narratives which no longer fit—when we return to my “institutional arthritis” idea at the end of this third revolution.

      • Taking a quick peak in the KJV, God has human attributes:

        Gen 1:3 God can speak
        Gen 1:4 God can see
        Gen 1:26 God(s) make man in his/their own image
        Gen 1:27 “male and female he created them” God uses he/him pronouns, but both male and female are in his own image
        Gen 2:2 God gets tired
        Gen 2:7 God can breathe
        Gen 8:21 God can smell
        Gen 12:7 God has, or can manifest, a visible body
        Ex 31:18 God has fingers

        No doubt there are more examples.

          • And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth ; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

  2. B.J. says

    A focus on faith – in any ideology, religious or secular – develops when the identity group feels itself under attack and its members have a desperate need for both cohesion and validation. It’s not just Abrahamic, though that’s the tradition our laws come from – east of Persia, it (somewhat later) arose independently in strains of Taoism and Buddhism that were linked to revolutionary movements such as the Yellow Turbans and Ikko-ikki. In more modern times, you see a similar rather…religious!…faith in Marxism-Leninism, in fascist movements, and in pockets of the Internet progressive left. The common thread, though, is that people’s identity is bound up in people agreeing with their beliefs. The idea that others might not share their beliefs becomes a personal attack; at a minimum, they must be outsiders, and at worst, the enemy.

    Now, back to the Yehudites, they’re a bunch of returning people with hostile neighbors who have (as mentioned) a dire need to be The Chosen People. Is it any wonder that they developed a mentality that demanded that their people agree rather than just obey?

  3. Stephen Peter says

    “Faith is nothing more than thoughts inside people’s heads, after all. What’s this got to do with government and law?”

    Well, how can people feel “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” if a Creator does not exist?

    More specifically, I suppose when the plebs get it in their heads that they are not servants of a sovereign human that rules over them here on Earth, but rather of a sovereign deity that rules over them after they die, it grants them some agency to pick and choose their Earthly rulers, right?

    • And to take it a step further, I suppose Earthly rulers have the authority to pick and choose who the plebs are and what the plebs do. But if your ruler is “not of this Earth”, it gives -you- agency to pick and choose who you are and what you do. (And then, if you find economic success, you can say it was “divine will” or whatnot. No more “Long Live the King!”, but rather, “Praise the Lord!”.)

      Which means, dare I say it, perhaps individual people have individual rights that no [Earthly] leader has granted them…perhaps, it’s…”inherent”?

      Man, I haven’t philosophized this much since my college days. It’s giving me a headache.

      • I like it! More!

        But what is this “individual” of which you speak? I know a lot of things have happened in the preceding couple thousand years, but have people changed how they fundamentally think of themselves since this page?

        And that other thing you mentioned— “rights,” was it? Sounds like something from the distant future, if you ask me. Doesn’t sound like anything around here in this age.

        Yet you say these crazy, futuristic, science fiction notions are somehow connected to what’s happening right now? To a time before anybody’d even invented horseshoes, ice cream, or the number 0?


Class Participation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Support the Guide on Patron!